Why Do Voters Choose NOTA? Data Provides Some Fascinating Clues

NOTA vote share in ST seats is twice that of general seats. But non-tribals seem to be behind it, not Adivasis

6 min read
Image used for representational purposes.

It has been five years since voters in India got the option to choose None of the Above or NOTA in elections. Close to 1.5 crore voters in India have pressed the button on NOTA in Lok Sabha and Assembly elections held since its introduction in 2013.

Who are these voters? Why did they choose NOTA over all the parties and candidates in the fray? There are no clear answers to these questions. But we can draw a few inferences based on the available data.

Puducherry And Chhattisgarh Have Highest NOTA Vote Share

Puducherry and Chhattisgarh have the highest percentage of NOTA votes anywhere in the country at 2.31 percent and 2.29 percent respectively. In the 2013 Assembly elections in Chhattisgarh, 3.07 percent voters chose NOTA, the highest in any state assembly election. This was the among the first Assembly elections held after the introduction of NOTA. The high vote share in Puducherry is largely due to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections in which 3.06 percent voters pressed the NOTA button.

On the other hand, the Haryana, Nagaland and Delhi have the lowest NOTA vote share in the country.

Puducherry and Chhattisgarh have the highest NOTA percentage, Haryana has the lowest.
Puducherry and Chhattisgarh have the highest NOTA percentage, Haryana has the lowest.
(Photo Courtesy: Factly)

NOTA Higher In Rural Seats And Areas With Lower Literacy

Garima Goel, a scholar at the King’s India Institute, King’s College London, has focussed her research on NOTA voters. According to her, “NOTA voting decreases as constituencies get more urbanised”. This means that rural voters are far more likely to vote NOTA than urban voters.

“Similarly, there is a negative relationship between NOTA voting and the literacy rate of Assembly constituencies,” Goel wrote. Seats with a lower literacy rate are more likely to have higher NOTA votes.

She further says that data doesn’t support popular assumptions that NOTA votes help in increasing voter turnout, or that people have a higher chance of voting NOTA in seats where a large number of criminal candidates are in the fray.

NOTA Substantially Higher In ST Seats

Perhaps the most striking aspect about NOTA is its disproportionately higher vote share in reserved constituencies, particularly seats reserved for Scheduled Tribes. The percentage of NOTA votes in ST seats is more than twice that of the vote share in general seats.

The NOTA vote share in ST seats is more than general seats across the country except four states - Arunachal Pradesh, Kerala, Manipur and Uttarakhand.

The pattern in seats reserved for Scheduled Castes is far less consistent. The NOTA vote share in SC seats is significantly more than the percentage in general seats in states like Jharkhand, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh.

At the Lok Sabha level, the 10 constituencies with the highest NOTA vote share in the 2014 general elections all happen to be reserved. Six out of these seats fall in districts in Central India that have been declared as Naxal-affected.

However, Goel cautions against drawing conclusions that the NOTA votes are necessarily coming from tribal voters. “Outside of the Northeast, tribals live alongside a substantial non-tribal population...Piecemeal anecdotal evidence from parts of Fifth Schedule (tribal) areas suggests that it may be driving the NOTA numbers in ST-reserved seats,” she wrote.

She gives the example of the Gadchiroli ST Assembly constituency in Maharashtra where over 10 percent voters chose NOTA in the Maharashtra Vidhan Sabha elections in 2014. She quotes the district magistrate who told reporters, “The OBCs felt betrayed by the fact that STs comprise 39 percent of the population in the district but they would have maximum representation. They therefore went for rejection of the candidates in the fray”.

Are Non-Adivasis Driving NOTA Numbers In Tribal Seats?

The case of reserved constituencies needs to be examined more closely because much of the evidence is anecdotal in nature.

One way we can do this is to look at states where Lok Sabha and Assembly elections were held simultaneously. This would help us examine voting behaviour in reserved Assembly segments in general Lok Sabha seats and general Assembly segments in reserved Lok Sabha seats.

Five states went to the polls along with the 2014 Lok Sabha elections - Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Arunachal Pradesh, Orissa and Sikkim. Since we are trying to look at reserved seats outside the Northeast, we will focus on Orissa, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.

Imagine that a voter in one of these states goes to the polling booth and when her turn to vote comes, she has two Electronic Voting Machines in front of her – one for the Lok Sabha election and the other for the state Assembly. In one of the EVMs, NOTA is present along with only SC or ST candidates, depending on which category the seat has been reserved for. In the second EVM, NOTA figures in a list of mostly general candidates. Is she more likely to vote NOTA in one or both?

A clear trend can be seen in ST seats. Voters are more likely to choose NOTA in the EVM with ST candidates than in the EVM with mostly general candidates.

Let’s take a look at some of the seats where voters made such a choice.

Take the Morada (General) Assembly seat in the Mayurbhanj ST Lok Sabha constituency in Orissa. In the Assembly election, in which there were mostly general candidates in the fray, 1176 voters chose NOTA. But in the Lok Sabha election, with only ST candidates in the fray, the number of voters who chose NOTA was 3505, nearly thrice the number. Same booth, same time.

Let’s look at an opposite case – Aswaraopeta, a reserved Assembly constituency in the general Lok Sabha Seat Khammam. Here 624 voters chose NOTA in an EVM that had mostly general category candidates but when it came to choosing between ST candidates, 1145 voters chose NOTA instead of any of those in the fray. This was 83 percent more than the NOTA votes for the Lok Sabha election in the same segment.

These cases indicate that there is a high likelihood of non-tribal voters choosing NOTA in ST seats. This data confirms the anecdotal evidence provided by the DM of Gadchiroli.

Is NOTA In Decline?

Only six states in India have had two Assembly elections with the NOTA option and in all these states except one, the percentage of people choosing NOTA has fallen. The first such state was Delhi, where NOTA fell from 0.64 percent in 2013 to 0.40% in 2015.

A similar trend could be seen in the recent Assembly elections in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Mizoram and Rajasthan. Telangana, however, saw an increase in the percentage of people choosing NOTA.

The biggest fall has come from the state where NOTA votes have been the highest – Chhattisgarh. Here NOTA’s vote share reduced from 3.07 percent to 2 percent. This drastic fall revealed another interesting pattern: that waves affect NOTA votes as well. Most of the seats where NOTA’s vote percentage fell drastically in Chhattisgarh also saw a huge swing in favor of the Congress. These include ST as well as general seats.

Of course these are only some of the macro factors that affect the NOTA vote. There can be many localised reasons also. For instances, some home-buyers in Gautam Buddh Nagar in Uttar Pradesh threatened to vote NOTA in 2014 in protest against the real estate lobby.

NOTA is still evolving as a concept. In 2015, it got a symbol - a ballot paper with a black cross running across it. And in the recently concluded municipal elections in Haryana, NOTA contested the polls as a fictitious candidate. This means that if NOTA had secured more votes than any candidate in a ward, a repoll would have to be held in which none of the candidates who lost to NOTA would be eligible to contest. Being a state with the lowest NOTA vote percentage, Haryana was a safe state to have this experiment. Perhaps this experiment is the future of NOTA, one that would give it comparatively more teeth.

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